Opinion | The Cruelty of Breaking Up Immigrant Families

Opinion | The Cruelty of Breaking Up Immigrant Families


In a tantrum last week, President Trump raged against Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, in part because she had not done enough to break up families who crossed the southern border illegally. Mr. Trump thinks such callousness will deter families from illegally crossing over from Mexico, often to seek asylum from gangs and political violence.

Ms. Nielsen apparently took offense at Mr. Trump’s abuse, but her department is still in line with his “security-focused agenda,” making plans to use military bases to hold children separated from their parents by the Border Patrol, according to The Washington Post.

That is likely to become necessary since Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that his prosecutors will file criminal charges against anyone crossing the border without authorization, rather than releasing them to await deportation. That legal escalation will tear apart more families with children, which now constitute 40 percent of people detained by American border agents, Ms. Nielsen told the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday.

That families constitute so great a proportion of illegal border crossers undercuts Mr. Trump’s contention that he is cracking down on immigration to keep out rapists and criminals. “These aren’t people, these are animals,” he snarled on Wednesday, in a stunningly dehumanizing reference to deported gang members. But his administration’s policies are not calculated to deal with the specific threat of violence, but rather to immiserate people whose only crime is wanting safety or opportunity. Migration north to the United States is largely what it has always been, an act of desperation by those fleeing violence, and of hope by those seeking new opportunity.

Cracking down on the most vulnerable immigrants, though, is the goal of several measures the administration is undertaking. The White House, raising the specter of gang violence, has called on Congress to amend child trafficking laws so that more children who cross the border on their own can be deported directly, rather than placed in foster care or with relatives. This new measure is particularly extreme considering that the federal agency that oversees such minors says only 1.6 percent are affiliated with gangs. The Department of Homeland Security is reducing or revoking a special status for immigrant children who say they have been abused, neglected or abandoned. And the State Department has canceled a program that makes it easier for children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to gain asylum by letting them apply before heading to the border.

Meanwhile, as officials hype their plans to deter a flood of immigrants, apprehensions at the Mexican border have plummeted since 2005, from about 1.1 million to about 300,000 for the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30. There has been no great change in the current year.

Doesn’t this sort of fearful, empty rationalization sound familiar?

“We have a crime problem,” Mr. Sessions said upon being sworn in as attorney general. “My best judgment, having been involved in criminal law enforcement for many years, is that this is a dangerous, permanent trend.”

Crime, of course, had been falling over all for years, and continued to fall in the past year, despite increases in some cities. Yet Mr. Sessions used his fake crime wave to justify his push for tougher sentencing, abandoning oversight of police departments accused of racial injustice and pulling back in general from criminal justice reforms that had gained wide support.

Promoting his call to sharply limit legal immigration, Mr. Trump tweeted in January that a report from the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security found that “nearly 3 in 4 individuals convicted of terrorism-related charges are foreign-born.” More credible analysts found that figure would probably be more like one in five.

Administration officials would like it to appear that they are without animus and are simply following legal requirements that had been overlooked before. But the Obama administration aggressively enforced immigration laws, deporting 2.5 million people and detaining unaccompanied minors who crossed the border, without deliberately targeting children.

That this administration is doing so may be offensive, but it should be no surprise, given that its immigration crackdown is already distinguished by simple cruelty toward families and working people.

Even supporters of tougher enforcement should tell the White House that it is going too far. It can enforce immigration laws without such draconian measures and protect children, who are most easily exploited.





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